Dried out Drought-stricken Cubans get by on a trickle of water

Sunday, August 8, 2004

HOLGUIN, Cuba -- For Rebeca Falla, it's getting harder and harder to chill out.

Eastern Cuba's worst drought in 40 years has turned cooking, washing clothes and scrubbing floors into a housewife's nightmare.

Then there's showering. Falla, 59, is accustomed to taking long, cold ones twice daily for relief from the humid 90-degree weather, but has to settle for a brief drizzle. "It leaves you in a very bad mood," she says.

The water shortage has affected thousands in Holguin city, Cuba's fourth largest city, in the area hardest hit. Surrounding towns in Holguin province and the eastern provinces of Camaguey and Las Tunas have also suffered.

Yucca, banana and sugarcane crops have withered away, spiking up prices in local markets. Nearly 13,000 bony cows have been slaughtered this year.

Two dry reservoirsAuthorities went on alert in Holguin in July 2003, when rain failed to fill reservoirs. Two months later one of the city's three reservoirs dried up, then another in May when rainfall was 40 percent below normal.

"Never before have two reservoirs dried up," said Leandro Bermudez, Holguin's deputy director of Cuba's National Institute of Hydraulic Resources. "It's been very tense here."

Although things have improved lately with more frequent rain showers, it will be weeks before reservoirs and wells are replenished. The reservoir that dried up in May has recovered only enough to guarantee 30 days of water for hospitals and clinics in Holguin, a city of 300,000.

Faucets run empty, and most wells dried up long ago.

Still, in communist Cuba, social solidarity is deeply ingrained, and the few remaining people with water on their property open wells and hoses to neighbors.

"They have never turned anyone away," Idalia Gongora, 43, said as she and her daughter filled buckets from her neighbors' well. "Thank goodness, they are very charitable people. If not, we would have suffered much more."

Cuba's centralized government reacted rapidly, digging more than 100 new wells in and around Holguin and setting up dozens of stores selling drinking water for two Cuban cents a liter. With the Cuban peso trading at 26 to the U.S. dollar, that's far less than an American penny.

Government trucks and tractors were converted into water carriers. About 115 cruise this city delivering water. It's free but mostly nondrinkable.

One recent evening, dozens of people surrounded one water carrier, as high-spirited as children around an ice cream truck, filling plastic and metal containers, even garbage cans.

Delivering waterOne man who returned repeatedly was teased by a neighbor, who shouted: "Mario's family appears to be growing by the minute!"

If deliveries don't meet demand, entrepreneurs with makeshift trucks and a special government permit fill the gap, also at two U.S. cents a liter.

In the Vista Alegre neighborhood of Holguin, the community council rallies about 30 people at 8 a.m. to plan the day -- organizing truck routes to every block, making sure clinics and bakeries get what they need, deploying volunteers who work as late as 9 p.m.

Holguin residents await the opening of a $5 million, 34-mile pipeline from the Cauto River in southern Cuba. Water is supposed to start flowing on Aug. 31 and fill half the city's daily needs. But it won't reach the countryside, where the economic pinch is sharpest.

Farmer Rafael Aguilera, 55, sitting on his porch 12 miles south of Holguin, said the daily yield from his skinny cows has fallen from four gallons a day to less than two pints. All the milk now goes to his 8-year-old son.

Aguilera lost his corn crops, and there's little drinking water. Parched, brittle land stretches out all around.

"Nothing makes it to us out here," said Aleda Hernandez, Aguilera's wife. "We're off the map."

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